Grad School Blues

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Sometimes graduate school feels like diving into a lake on an early summer morning.  You know the cold will be shocking, but you feel confident that you’ll adjust.  You can’t quite see below the surface of the water, but you’re excited to submerge your head and open your eyes.  You swim out away from the shore.  It’s challenging.  And thrilling.  You’re testing yourself, and your body is responding. It’s downright joyful.

Sometimes, it’s like that dream you have just as you’re drifting off to sleep, where you feel like you’re falling.  You’re stomach and your heart are up in your throat.  You realize, on some level, that if you had the presence of mind to check, you’d probably actually be wearing a parachute.  But you can’t check, so you don’t.  And, in all likelihood, you’ll wake up with a gasp in your own bed, finding you aren’t falling at all, though you’ll still feel it in the pit of your stomach.  But you’ll go back to sleep, and when you wake up, you’ll probably think “Hey, I think I’d like a swim.”

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To be less metaphorical, sometimes graduate school is like this.

You plan your field season and it seems doable.  You’re trucking along, keeping up with the lab work, and you’re getting just enough sleep.  You’re going to yoga class, you’re running, you’re still taking your dog for a long walk each night.

Maybe three weeks pass.  You’re tired.  You’re slowly shifting your diet over to beans, grains, and granola bars.  You are now, decidedly, not getting enough sleep.  You keep telling people things are going fine (because they are, technically).

The season is halfway over and you bite back a panic attack (the first one you’ve ever almost had in your entire life).  You stress eat a burrito approximately the size of your own head. You keep reminding yourself that you can’t just fall off a moving train without at least breaking a leg.

You drink more coffee than anyone should probably be allowed.

You pass the halfway point.  You get to know at least two of your technicians pretty well, and it turns out that they are hilarious, and eager, and ask you questions about science that make you feel excited.  You fall down in the mud a lot.  You laugh so much.  Your adviser is kind and supportive. You get an epic shit ton of work done.

You realize that you might never enjoy getting up before 5 o’clock in the morning, but you are never, ever sad when you see the sun rise or when you have your face down at the ground counting snails.   

You feel deeply grateful that you have a good support systems, overall great mental health, and (by your own estimation) a resilient sort of personality.  It’s your genetics, and circumstances, and privilege that have allowed you to look back and see that, almost always, you’ve laughed the most.   

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Life goes on while you’re in graduate school.  It’s an experience that is simultaneously challenging, gratifying, and requiring of a tremendous amount of both mental and emotional energy.  There are certainly folks excelling in their graduate careers while dealing with mental illnesses, depression, traumatic experiences, chronic disease, or any number of significant life upheavals.  There are almost surely folks dealing with those same things who are struggling to complete their degrees.  There are folks in between.

Then there are people like me, who are just type A enough and just driven enough to occasionally psyche themselves out completely.  In this way the culture of graduate school is terrible for all of us, because everyone is terrified to say when things are going poorly, they don’t feel like they are performing their best, or they are just feeling a general lack of motivation.  However, I think those of us with the privilege of good mental health should do what we can, when we can, to normalize these sorts of issues.  Because to some degree, great or small, mental health struggles will touch most of us during our graduate school careers.  

Here, I’ll go first.

Two weeks ago, I almost had a panic attack, my first one ever (well, nearly).  My heart started racing and my skin got all clammy.  I didn’t hyperventilate, but I could feel the adrenaline pumping in my veins.  I left campus.  I texted my husband.  I called my mom.  I went back into the lab and I felt really weird all afternoon, but things were mostly fine.  It rattled me deeply, but it didn’t even really interrupt my workflow.    

The event stuck with me for about a week.  People would ask me how things were going, and I’d want to answer honestly, which probably would have been something like, “The work is on schedule, but I feel like I’m only barely in control of my own body.”  I actually went with, “Things are going well, but I’m feeling pretty tired and stressed.”

I think that admitting that we are stressed, or tired, or frustrated is the least we can do for each other.  I’m not asking anyone to bare their soul to an acquaintance, because I’m an introvert and that sounds legitimately awful.  Let it all hang out with your friends, with your support system.  But, until folks like me, feel at least comfortable enough to respond to an inquiry at happy hour with, “I’m feeling a bit stressed and unmotivated lately, but I feel like I’m about to turn the corner.” I don’t think we will ever hear anyone say, “I’ve changed my meds, so it’s been pretty hard for me to concentrate this week.” or “I’ve been working in a coffee shop instead of my office today because just going in there makes me feel anxious.”

There are, undoubtedly, situations where putting on a brave face is the right thing to do, because faking it till you make it gets you through it sometimes. Though most times, in my own experience, denying my feelings of uncertainty or stress leads to a lot more dreams of falling. A brave face can really just compound the issue, and it makes it harder for folks who aren’t even sure if their parachute will open to speak up or find the support they need. When we provide what honesty we can, we may make it a little bit easier for everyone to wake up ready to swim.    

Author’s Note:  Inspired by these posts by Sayward, who is my low key blog hero.  Thanks for being such a brave badass, Sayward.

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